Drone Pilot Fights for Right to Profit in the Unmanned Skies
In June 30, 1956, two airliners flying over the Grand Canyon collided. All 128 passengers and crew aboard the planes perished. It was the first U.S. air disaster with more than 100 fatalities. The accident made clear that the nation’s burgeoning air-travel industry needed better safety oversight. Citing the “tragic losses of human life,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation creating the Federal Aviation Administration in 1958.
Six decades and a zillion regulations later, the agency that supervises everything from air-worthiness to passenger gadget use has taken legal action for the first time against an on-ground pilot — an operator of a styrofoam, 4.5-pound Ritewing Zephyr-powered glider. The $10,000 levy (.pdf) invokes the same code section that governs the conduct of actual airline-passenger pilots, charging modelerRaphael Pirker with illegally operating a drone for commercial purposes and flying it “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.”
Pirker is fighting the citation (.pdf) before the National Transportation Safety Board, challenging the FAA’s assertion that it has the power to supervise the use of unmanned drones. If Pirker prevails, the FAA’s 2007 ban on the commercial use of unmanned drones — a thriving overseas business — may be nullified.
Pirker’s legal battle throws a spotlight on a commercial drone scene in the United States operating in a grey area. The FAA has issued dozens of cease-and-desist letters to operators of commercial model aircraft, forcing some companies to shut down. Others, however, are performing their aerial filming and crop and real estate surveying businesses underground — or sometimes right in the open.
The agency is working on a set of regulations for the budding industry, but those rules won’t be unveiled until as early as 2015. Meanwhile, uncertainty reigns.
Pirker’s lawyer maintains that the 2007 ban on commercial drones is invalid because the FAA failed to hold public hearings before issuing the rule. “There is no enforceable federal regulation concerning the operation of a model airplane,” says the attorney, Brendan Schulman of New York.
The term drone — appropriated from the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles — is relatively new, but model air-planing has a long history. Just 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, the nation’s first National Aeromodeling Championships were held in 1923. The American Academy of Model Aeronautics, of Muncie, Indiana, boasts some 170,000 members today.
“The first time you fly one of these things, you’re whole body thinks it’s flying,” says Pirker, who runs TBS Avionics, a Hong Kong-based drone parts supplier.
Pirker, 28, has captured dramatic footage over Rio De Janeiro, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, among dozens of other famous and not-so-famous locations.
His FAA legal troubles began when he was on the job for the public relations firm Lewis Communications in 2011. His assignment: Capture images over the University of Virginia. The resulting video takes viewers on a wild ride, and the FAA’s citation says that it amounts to a series of violations — flying too low over vehicles, buildings, people, streets and structures, and even aiming the craft at a person.
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That was his spotter, Pirker says.